by David Fuller · August 29, 2015
Reviewing a Fringe show is often a gamble, a roll of the thespic dice that sometimes comes up snake eyes, but once in a while brings in a real winner. This production is the latter. An ensemble of 6 men and 5 women, most of whom are recent graduates of the MFA program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, a/k/a LAMDA, have created a gut-wrenching yet inspiring take on the Lope de Vega classic play, directed by London-based director William Oldroyd, and adapted by the ensemble from a translation by Adrian Mitchell. Yes, this is a transplanted college production, but there is nothing pejorative about that qualifier!
Only an hour long, with virtually no set (except those plywood boxes ubiquitous to drama schools that serve as seats, tables and here also, thrones) and simple costumes, the story unfolds with an inexorable pace that drives to the end in a startlingly modern-resonating parable about a people uprising against abhorrent, aberrant tyrannical leadership. The tale of Fuente Ovejuna is one of a Castilian overlord during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (the ones who commissioned Columbus to sail to the New World) who believes passionately in “droit du seigneur,” the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sexual relations with a vassal's bride on her wedding night. In fact, this man, Commander de Guzman, believes he has the right to have his way with any of his village women at any time. He treats all his villagers, men and women as chattel. The cruelty finally comes to a head when the women revolt, ultimately storming de Guzman’s home and killing him. When word gets to Ferdinand and Isabella of the revolt, they send an inquisitor to discover the perpetrator, but no one will name names. Despite excruciating torture (made all the more palpable here by having the torture offstage using sound only) the women all answer the same way when asked who did the deed : “Fuente Ovejuna!” In the end, the Queen pardons the villagers, as it is her only recourse since no guilty party can be found.
The performances are uniformly outstanding so it’s not fair to single anyone out. But this is theater, where, well, what is fair anyway? Jane May plays the ravished newlywed Laurencia with a combination of fierce adult strength and soft teenage vulnerability that would be the envy of many. Sam Gilroy is so believably reprehensible as the Commander that the audience hatred is palpable and we rejoice in his demise. The rest, well, go see it and read the program, they are great!
Kudos to Ducdame Ensemble and Breukelen Stage + Film for bringing this timely, unfortunately relevant piece to the Fringe. The Syrian uprising, where the common people are in revolt against a dictator who saw fit to unleash deadly nerve gas on his population, is sadly only one of many contemporary examples of humankind’s inhumanity. We need the story of Fuente Ovejuna.